Israel/Palestine — January 2008

Sociopolitical situation

Israeli infrastructure in the West Bank now accounts for nearly 40 percent of the territory (although it is fragmented into enclaves) and affects all aspects of Palestinian life. According to an UNWRA report, the occupied Palestine territory is one of only 10 countries in the world with an unemployment rate in excess of 20 percent. Palestinian households have to cope by borrowing money, selling possessions, reducing health care and food consumption and taking children out of school. Additionally, more women are attempting to enter employment sectors traditionally devoted to men as a means to earn an income for their families.

For some Palestinians, sifting through rubbish has become a way to earn a meager income. At the Israeli Psagot landfill site, on the outskirts of Ramallah, unemployed men and even boys as young as 12 work to collect scrap metal to sell to dealers. This and other landfills are attracting desperate Palestinians with no job opportunities. Around 50 percent of Palestinians are now living below the poverty line; 17 percent of those are extremely poor.

Israel’s closure of the Gaza Strip, coupled with the lack of fuel and electricity, has raised fears among the international community for the welfare of millions of Gaza residents. Though Gazans are used to temporary disruptions, rarely have they been so widespread or lasted so long. Political viewpoints of Hamas are beginning to change; 61 percent of Gazans favor Fatah’s course in formal peace talks with Israel and recognize it as the legitimate government for the Palestinian people.

Israeli society is reaching a new high of racism according to a recently published report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. According to some of the findings, half of the Israeli Jewish population believes that Israeli Arabs do not deserve equal rights and support the idea that the state should encourage Arab emigration from Israel. This also comes at a time when immigration to Israel in 2007 is down 6 percent, the lowest since 1989.

Religious situation

Physical and verbal harassment of Palestinian Christians, is increasing in both the Palestinian territories and in Israel. In one incident, a Christian Arab cab driver wearing a cross was stabbed to death by a Jewish passenger who planned to kill an Arab. In Gaza’s small Christian community, the kidnapping, torture and killing of Rami Khader Ayyad, the director of the Holy Bible Society and the owner of the only Christian bookshop in Gaza, shocked the community. Though no one has claimed responsibility, it is believed to have been perpetrated by Muslim extremists.

There has also been an increase in the number of attacks on Christian clergy in Jerusalem by Jews, according to the former advisor to the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry on Christian Affairs, Mr. Daniel Rossing. For instance, a Greek Orthodox clergyman was spat on by an elderly Jewish man. A few weeks later, a brawl instigated by a yeshiva student broke out when the Armenian Archbishop was spat on and the church’s 17thcentury cross was broken. The Israeli government has also ceased to issue reentry visas for Arab Christian clergy, including 250 Catholic personnel. Most are either unable to leave the West Bank or to return from visits to their own countries.

After two years, the Israeli government recognized in October Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilus III. In early November, two men were convicted by the Jerusalem district court of forgery and fraud for posing as representatives of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and forging the signature of the patriarch to extend a $20 million real estate lease of two neighborhoods in central Jerusalem.

Internal tensions are still mounting since the conclusion of Bishop Riah Abu Al-Assal’s term as Bishop of the Anglican Church and the nomination of his successor, Bishop Suheil Dawani. Part of this concerns the supervision of the Riah Abu Al-Assal Anglican School in Nazareth.

Bethlehem had more than 60,000 foreign visitors and pilgrims for Christmas compared to only 20,000 last year. Church leaders are trying to convince more religious pilgrims to stay in Bethlehem hotels, eat in local restaurants and tour the city, which would boost Bethlehem’s economy. Some 400 Gaza Christians were permitted to visit Bethlehem for Christmas this year; Gaza’s church leaders report that an unprecedented number of Christian families will use their travel permits to leave permanently the Gaza Strip and settle in the West Bank.

In a recent poll, it was reported that 29 percent of Palestinians prefer a Muslim, non-Arab state to any other government. This is a serious and potentially dangerous change within Palestinian society, especially in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

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